Recorded on August 9, 2018 at the Chemung County Historical Society.
The tropes of the innocent, who reveals cultural absurdities through his seemingly foolish observations, dates back to the earliest satires of Rome and Europe. This innocent brims with certainty that his ignorance is both apt and virtuous, and inspires audiences to laugh at his idiocy. I argue that during what was most commonly referred to as the Gilded Age, a clear thread of satire begins to emerge, one that shifts the innocent from the butt of the joke to one who slyly delivers the punchline. Although the era was imbued with a faith in progress that led to its moniker "the Confident Years," it was also a period rife with confidence men who utilized the national obsession with innocence to their advantage. With a wink and a nod to the latter, the satirists of the Gilded Age transformed the American innocent from one to be laughed at to one to be laughed with. There is no better example of the satiric approach to the trope of "the American Adam" than Mark Twain's iconic character Huckleberry Finn - unless it is Twain's own Adam. I would like to present a fresh reading of Twain's approach of the American Adam based on the satire presented in some of the author's last works of fiction, Letters from the Earth and The Diaries of Adam and Eve. The way in which Twain skewers the notion of innocence in his later writing allows for a new lens for which to examine Huck, as well as the writer's own atheism. Twain toys with America's naive exceptional self-image through the persona of a sympathetic Satan, who ridicules Adam and Eve for their innocence and exposes much national self-delusion in the process. While in his earlier fiction, Twain satirized religion more subtly, but the early twentieth century his open mockery of Christianity took clear aim at the American mythos of exceptionalism, ad the ways in which the nation needed to reorder its priorities.
M.M. Dawley has a Ph.D. from the American & New England Studies program at Boston University, and teaches in the Humanities department at Lesley University. Her current book project for Penn State University Press's series Humor in America focuses on the literary history of satire in the Gilded Age. Her article, "You'd Oughter Start a Scrap-BooK Gossip and Aspirational Culture in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country," appears in the Fall 2017 issue of the Edith Wharton Review. M.M. Dawley has also collaborated with Gene Andrew Jarrett on contributing to the African America Studies module of Oxford Bibliographies Online, published by Oxford University Press.